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The Science Behind Negative Thinking (and How to Flip the Switch)

Neuroscientists have a name for the automatic pattern of pessimism that we fall into. It’s called the negativity bias.

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We all succumb to negative thinking in our day-to-day lives; but why? What is the science behind negative thinking?

You work really hard on something and post it on social media. Then you anxiously wait for the likes to start rolling in. 

You apply for the perfect job, nail the interview, and sit by the phone waiting for the call. 

The likes don’t come, the phone doesn’t ring. 

“Why can’t I catch a break?” “What is wrong with me?”

Although it doesn’t seem like it, these are thoughts we all have. And, as it turns out, it’s all a part of being human. 

The science of negative thinking

Neuroscientists have a name for the automatic pattern of pessimism that we fall into. It’s called the negativity bias

This process served us well when we were wandering around looking for food and shelter 100,000 years ago. 

However, in today’s world, this outdated pattern of thinking can spell serious trouble for us. 

Our negativity bias can cause us to react to a harsh email or difficult conversation as if our life were in danger. It activates a cascade of stress hormones and leaves us fixated on potential threats, unable to see the bigger picture.

Neuroscientist Rick Hanson address this pattern of thinking in his book Buddha’s Brain.

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” 

It’s simply how we have evolved. 

Can we reverse this hard-wired habit of the mind?

One of the brilliant aspects of our brainsis we have the power to train and adapt them. 

When we hear people talk about “rewiring the brain” they are referring to the concept of neuroplasticity

Essentially, our brains are a continuous work in progress and we are fully capable of changing thought patterns, habits, and processes that no longer serve us. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of neuroplasticity is that when we train our brains they change both physically and chemically

As it turns out, there is a practice designed specifically for canceling out our negativity bias.

Notice-Shift-Savor 

The practice of notice-shift-savor combines neuroplasticity with the power of gratitude to flip the switch on our negativity bias. 

With this simple exercise, we can build the habit of shifting out of negativity bias to more useful states of mind: feeling grateful, celebrating our strengths, and recognizing opportunities. 

Notice-shift-savor is built upon a core insight of early neuroscientist Donald Hebb: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” 

According to this philosophy, by initiating positive emotions when we become aware of our negativity bias, we can train the brain to repeat the process. 

Essentially, by repeating the exercise over and over again, we create a pattern in the brain that can automatically trigger positive feelings instead of negative: think of it like a positivity bias. 

I outline the technique in detail in this free exercise.  

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